Three years ago at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) just outside Washington, I convened in a large room with a small group of mostly British expatriates to watch Nigel Farage rail against the European Union. That was then; this is now, and today Farage is one of the event’s most iconic superstars. His speeches have been upgraded to the main ballroom where he’s received adoringly (the woman sitting next to me last year cheered louder for him than she did for Trump). Afterwards throngs corner him in hallways brimming with grins and hoisting cell phones high.
Yes, welcome to CPAC, the volatile, star-studded Lollapalooza of American conservatism, held annually and somewhat ironically at the Gaylord Convention Center in Maryland. It’s akin to your Tory party conference, only with cardboard letters securely fastened to the walls and liable to overdose you on star-spangled Jumbotron camp. American conservatism is to a great degree organised around celebrity pundits, and at CPAC they’re all here, which is why a few years ago I almost got trampled by two Buick-sized security guards hustling Ann Coulter past a crowd of wailing fans. (‘Hellooooooo,’ she drawled.) This year, though, the spotlight was on the Europeans. Farage is speaking again, yet even he was upstaged by another surprise debut: Marion Le Pen, the niece of Marine Le Pen and heiress apparent to France’s National Front party. It’s difficult to explain to a non-American readership just how strange it was to see her name on that list. The Le Pens for decades were virtual unknowns here: an occasional snarled condemnation of Marion’s grandfather Jean-Marie off the arid lips of my Marxist comparative politics professor: that was all I ever heard.
Further, conservatism in America has long been analogised to a ‘three-legged stool’, held upright by the philosophies of Christian traditionalism, economic libertarianism, and national defence hawkishness. The National Front, on the other hand, supports legal abortion, embraces the welfare state, and is skeptical of Nato and overseas military adventures. Plus it’s…well, you know…French. And yet Marion was probably the most buzzed-about CPAC speaker this year other than Trump and Mike Pence. It’s a testament to how, as American conservatism has become more nationalist, it’s paradoxically looked to Europe for inspiration. Le Pen’s speech was well delivered, lightly attended but cheered throughout. Papering over those aforementioned philosophical differences, she settled on a simple point of agreement: nations should be able to chart their own courses free from hectoring globalist influence. ‘I want America first for the American people. I want Britain first for the British people. And I want France first for the French people,’ she said to raucous applause. And then: ‘The past two years have shown one thing: never underestimate the people.’ Such sentiments, especially French-accented, once gave conservative academics the heebie-jeebies, but our right is in a state of flux right now and it’s gravitated closer to Le Pen than, say, Paul Ryan.
Those changes pose a challenge for CPAC, whose modus operandi is to present a united conservative front. It’s a goal they fail at regularly as the restless and hungry college Republican attendees come stomping through the doors. While the elders button up, the kids are much more libertarian. While the panel discussions hang tight to a twisted post-Iraq mutation of neoconservatism, their audiences have little appetite for foreign wars. And perhaps most glaringly, while Phil Robertson’s and Rick Santorum’s speeches thunder with Scripture quotes, much of the audience takes a less than strict read on biblical morality. ‘It’s easier to get laid at CPAC than on spring break,’ one college student delicately told Mother Jones; the conference is ‘Cancun for right-wingers’ and a ‘four-day bender,’ concluded the journalist Rebecca Nelson after being mercilessly hit on while investigating conservative Tinder use. It’s that old Manhattan Project chemistry, likeminded young people working together towards a common aim—even if, at least in CPAC’s case, the contradictions are so abundant as to make that goal murky.
Two years ago, there was mutiny in the air. Then-primary candidate Donald Trump, who had initially agreed to speak, got wind that the audience might be less than monolithically receptive, and canceled at the last minute. That cleared the decks for Senator Ted Cruz, at the time Trump’s most credible GOP rival, to deliver a televangelist-like address whose subtext was: we can’t let the pretender pull this off. The rebellion boiled over into the hallways, where it simmered long after hours at a wilder-than-usual spate of parties where drinks were laced with ideological frisson. Then, last year, all that was gone. A sea of ‘Make America Great Again’ red caps stretched down the main hallway. Donald Trump, now president, had successfully unified the conservative activist base, and the ironic effect was to dull CPAC’s edge. In 2016, I ended my Friday night at 5:30 a.m. with the beginnings of a hangover I would have needed Kingsley Amis to describe; in 2017, everyone seemed to go to bed early.
Besides being an opportunity to binge drink, CPAC is also useful for gauging the mood of America’s right-wing activists. So how would they be found this year? Would they be fractured or more disciplined? The answer seemed to be the latter: this really is Trump’s conservative movement now. Mike Pence got his loudest applause when he promised that ‘the wall’ will still be built. An entire panel was dedicated to combatting fake news. Even the writer Ben Shapiro, an avowed Trump opponent during the presidential primary, admitted that the president had done plenty of good. The National Rifle Association’s Dana Loesch methodically hit just about every Trumpist enemy, coming out to a video in which she almost set a New York Times newspaper on fire with a lighter and bashing the FBI for failing to prevent recent American mass shootings. Ten years ago, slamming American law enforcement would have been unutterable here, but with fatigue setting in over Robert Mueller’s probe into Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia, that’s just the latest change currently pending.
Yet while much is in the air, plenty at CPAC remains the way it was before. Most of Thursday morning was spent on apologetics for gun rights, while Pence pledged to roll back the nuclear deal with Iran and stand up to the world’s dictatorships. It’s a reminder that Le Pen is right: nationalism, while universal in concept, is particular in application, and America’s is going to be something more swaggering and militaristic than ‘France for the French.’ Indeed, listening to the chest thumping, one couldn’t help recalling George W. Bush, a jarring flashback given that he’s lately been persona non grata on the right. Bush was a nationalist in his own right, and while he saw America as an emitter of universal principles rather than a stronghold of cultural peculiarities, the difference when you’re off against Iranian ayatollahs can easily get lost. And that might be the greatest irony of all. What if, after all this flux, after all this argument and contradiction and internecine warfare, American conservatism ends up pretty close to where it was before?